Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


Rural Financial Counselling Service

7:20 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

After delivering another record level of harvest, 13.52 million tonnes, Western Australian farmers are busy preparing for the upcoming season. And, despite producing another record level of grain harvest, the third in four years, many farmers, especially in the drought-stricken eastern wheat-belt, remain nervous about their financial future. The same can be said about pastoralists in the Pilbara and the Kimberley and sheep producers in the Great Southern, who are finally seeing prices slowly return to the levels they were at prior to Labor's disastrous decision to suspend live exports to Indonesia, crippling the financial future of thousands of families across regional Western Australia.

WA's farming families are no strangers to hardship. For generations, they have grown crops and raised livestock in some of the harshest and most challenging conditions you can find. They know too well the devastating impact of drought, of hailstorms, of bushfires, of floods, of having their markets taken from them at the whim of a Labor minister. This notion of toughing it out is something you have to admire, and the 'battler' myth remains true throughout much of rural Western Australia. Yet, like all myths, it is slowly disappearing in an economic and social environment that is challenging the viability of most rural businesses.

Many farming families with long-term relationships with the land are slowly losing the battle to remain viable. Lack of profitability remains a major challenge for many farm businesses, with production costs such as fuel, labour, fertiliser, and transport continuing to increase, resulting in decreased profitability and increased farm debt levels. The purchase of stock, seed, tractors and headers all requires capital which is often difficult to source, especially when many banks are trying to limit these same debt levels.

Traditional farm succession practices involving the intergenerational transfer of the family farm are no longer viable, with tighter margins and high land values making it difficult to buy out siblings. The traditional practice of handing the farm to the eldest son is no longer acceptable, and the conflicting expectations of family members, divorce, and the growing complexity of laws which impact on the transfer of assets are making farm succession planning emerge as a major issue for most primary producers.

In every family, financial problems are the major source of stress and anxiety, but their impact on farming families, who live and work in isolated areas, is immense. These issues often cause a quiet desperation which becomes a way of life for many families, who try to manage without advice and support, often resolving to battle it out against the odds, often until the financial reserves are exhausted.

This is why the decision of the coalition government to maintain the current funding of the Rural Financial Counselling Service is to be commended, because it highlights that this government cares about the farming families in regional areas of my home state of Western Australia. Unlike Labor, we are committed to expanding their markets, cutting red tape, creating opportunity for regional industries and ensuring the continuation of the Rural Financial Counselling Service in Western Australia.

The value of the contribution being made to the lives of farming families by the Rural Financial Counselling Service in WA remains unquestionable. The Rural Financial Counselling Service of Western Australia offers a free, confidential and mobile service which assists individuals, families and small rural businesses with under 10 employees in identifying financial and business options for those in stressed situations, whilst dealing with the complex set of emotions being expressed by rural customers. It assists with negotiating with financiers and provides information about government and other assistance schemes. It helps rural businesses access accountants, farm management consultants and educational services. Perhaps most importantly, it provides support in identifying and approaching key professionals for succession planning, family mediation and personal counselling.

The board of the Rural Financial Counselling Service in Western Australia contains some of the most respected figures from the industry, from a range of backgrounds including banking, consulting, support agencies and farming groups. Over the past five years it has provided support and services to almost 600 clients, and it employs ten rural financial counsellors located throughout the state, all of whom are focused on engaging with and incorporating their client's ideas and solutions within a proper, sustainable business framework. In the words of the CEO of the Rural Financial Counselling Service of Western Australia, Chris Wheatcroft, the strength of the Rural Financial Counselling Service is that it 'returns control to the decision makers, the farming family'.